October 27, 2007

Vocation, religious community, and concern about faithfulness to Church teaching

A man I’ll call “Mr. Visitor” sent me the following.

- - - -

I have difficulty trusting the judgment of others, most especially when I am in disagreement, because of past experiences or examples.
So often we have seen or even experienced bishops, priests, religious superiors, laity, etc., lead people astray or teach incorrect things, so that the only way to learn the Truth was to seek it out on our own, most of the time getting it right.
Thus it can be difficult for modern Catholics, who are devout and seeking the Truth, to fully trust their religious leaders.
This becomes especially difficult for the man seeking religious life in today's spectrum of communities and seminaries.
It is almost as though you must be formed before entering an order to know what is right and what is wrong.
Thus this skepticism (which can be very necessary) can easily dominate the man's outlook, to the point that everything has to be filtered through his own opinion because, in the past that has been the only reliable standard.
But because of its dominance, it can make things difficult even in a good community because it is such a habit.
In the world it was a legitimate virtue, but in religious life it can easily become a vice and a hindrance to spiritual development.
What makes it even more difficult to overcome is the fact that the stakes are much higher.
This is not like working in a job where if the boss asks you to do something you don't think is best and it messes up there is just inconvenience or loss of money.
This ultimately has to do with our eternal salvation, so our skepticism does have some legitimate basis.
The question is how to let that guard down enough to be open to those things that are from God but are contrary to our opinion, and yet stay vigilant enough to be able to recognize anything that is actually wrong....

Much of this attitude may be due to the first community I was a postulant with (for 4 months).
They were a very "liberal" group of Franciscans, and I was just a naive college aged kid who didn't know my Faith very well.
The experience helped me to realize I didn't know my faith, and thus I studied it to the point of getting my undergrad degree in Catholic Theology, but it also made me very wary of the orthodoxy of communities.

Anyway, just wondered on your thoughts or experience.

- - - -

Dear Mr. Visitor,

I’ll offer here the beginning of a possible approach to some answers for you. I do not claim to offer here a comprehensive and final answer to your questions.

I certainly agree that one who is investigating a religious community must discern whether or not that community is basically faithful to the authentic teachings of the Catholic Church. If that community is basically not, then forget it.

However, it is likely that even the most faithful religious community will never be the “perfect” religious community.

The first “Christian community” consisted of:
+ a child who was God the Son incarnate;
+ a mother who was a virgin who, from the first moment of her existence, was preserved from the stain of original sin;
+ and her husband who was obedient to God even in his sleep.

No other Christian community ever since has been able to so much as start imitating that one.

The second “Christian community” had a band of thirteen men at its core: God the Son incarnate— Jesus by name— plus twelve other men. Of those twelve men, one betrayed Jesus for a sack of money. Another one was a bigmouth who, despite saying he would die for Jesus, ran away when Jesus got arrested, and then lied that he didn’t so much as know Jesus. The other eleven also ran away. The betrayer committed suicide. Jesus rose from the dead. The remaining eleven eventually turned their lives around, and were faithful unto death to the mission they had received from Jesus. That’s the real story of the original One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Real Christian communities somehow relive the story of the original “Band of Thirteen Men.”

God the Son incarnate suffered badly in his own hand-picked religious community. Then, since the Church is his Bride, he’s been in a questionable marriage ever since. It’s had some bright and glorious moments; but it has had and will always have its dark and shameful moments.

Entering a religious community and persevering in it will require of you a measure of throwing yourself into the hands of God without looking back. It seems like a threat-filled risk. However, the paradox is that “holding back” paralyzes your own interior freedom, with the result that you can feel that you are not fulfilling something that you need to fulfill both for yourself and for God.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta set up her own religious community. She had clear and rigorous standards. She and her community have provided a sterling example to all religious communities. However, to the end of her life she had an overwhelming feeling of having been left empty and abandoned by God— a feeling only, but real nonetheless.

I recall that she once remarked that God has not called us to success, but to faithfulness.

Other saints have had different interior experiences. Saint Teresa of Avila had a rich interior life, one full of ecstasy and a powerful sense of God’s intimate presence; yet she herself discounted that experience, and expressed her greatest admiration for those of her nuns who had no such interior experiences, but remained faithful to the ordinary mission of daily life as nuns.

Whatever the situation may be, and however other men may be, the situation and other men do not determine your generosity and faithfulness in serving God. You determine that, no matter what the situation and how other men may be.

A man may be in a faithful religious community,
but himself be a vicious sinner.

A man may be in a sinful religious community,
but himself be a great saint.

A man may be in a faithful religious community,
and also himself be a great saint.

A man may be in a sinful religious community,
and also himself be a great sinner.

It is up to the man to be what he wants to be.

Fraternally yours in Christ and his Church,

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good question & great answer..

12:39 AM  
Blogger Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

Well !

After reading this, it seems impertinent for a layman with no experience of monastic life to offer his opinion.

But in addition to the wise words of Father Stephanos about the faithfulness of a community to the Church and its teaching, I would say this :

If a man feels attracted to live his life according to a certain rule, (the rule of St. Benedict, the rule of St. Dominic, the rule of St. Alphonsus, etc.,)
he must distinguish between the rule which inspires him and a community which follows that rule more or less.

A certain community might have grown so far way from the ideals of its founder that it will not satisfy such an aspirant.

No community, being composed of
normal, fallible human beings, is without its faults.

The gulf between one's ideal of the religious life and the real thing is (I guess) very wide.

Any aspirant would have to realise this and be ready to live with it, or in most communities he wouldn't last five minutes.

Now, let him ask himself : Do I still feel drawn to the religious life ? So much so that the call must be answered ?

If the answer is "yes", then perhaps a short retreat is advisable with the community to which he feels drawn.

But even that experience, though helpful, is unlikely to give him more than a brief glimpse of the ups and downs of community life as it is lived every day, and as he will have to live it every day for the rest of his life.

Is that really what he wants ?
Is that really the life he feels called to ?

I suppose some men can answer that question more easily than others, particularly as the years pass.

For other men, it may be a question which in one form or another they have to wrestle with all their lives.

I don't know.

Well, he would have plenty of time to find out through the months and years of postulancy and novitiate.

God, in his mysterious way, will decide.

And if the individual isn't prepared to let God decide, then he probably hasn't got a vocation to the religious life.

I dare say it's tempting to say to onself, "Well, that community just didn't live up to my expectations."

But I wonder if that isn't sometimes a form of self deception ?

What's the old saying ?
You can deceive others. You can deceive yourself. But you cannot deceive God.

Harsh words ?
I hope not. I don't think so.
I'm just trying to be realistic.

Well, news here in England of the recent fires in San Diego seems to be trailing other news stories now, so I hope all is well and that Father and his confreres sayed safe.

11:13 AM  
Blogger RobK said...

I am with jackie - good question and fabulous answer. The question is pertinent to all our religious undertakings. I know I sometimes feel this way in my parish or other communities to which I belong. I find your answer enlightening, Father. Thanks.

12:49 PM  
Blogger ignorant redneck said...

The sad thing is that there are so many communities that have significantly departed from their original Charisms and moved so far into error.

It is a problem for people who are looking to live out their Christian Call.

It's sad that this question needed to be asked--and good that Father has been able to respond.

7:39 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Click HERE to go back to the front page of this blog.